Jewish World Review Jan. 28, 2003 / 25 Shevat 5763
Shaq vs. Yao, a new world diss-order
Sometimes trash talking goes too far, even in the entertainment industry known as sports.
Shaquille O'Neal tarnished his long-held image as a loveable giant in popular culture (anybody remember his non-Oscar-winning role as the genie Kazaam in the 1996 kid-flick of the same name? Anybody?) when he crudely mocked the native tongue of his Chinese rookie rival, center Yao Ming of the Houston Rockets.
He was only joking, Shaq insists, when he said on a cable TV sports talk show last June, "Tell Yao Ming, 'Ching-chong-yang-wash-ah-soh.'"
Asian community leaders were not amused. After AsianWeek columnist Irwin Tang heard the remark replayed, he decried Shaq's insensitivity in a December column. The Organization of Chinese Americans called on Shaq to apologize.
Judy Chu, Democratic chairwoman of California's Assembly Select Committee on Hate Crimes, called on the NBA to sanction Shaq. Protesters picketed the Jan. 17 Lakers-Rockets game outside Houston's Compaq Center, protesting O'Neal's remarks.
I sympathize. I've heard many painful stories from Asian-Americans who grew up with occasional taunts from non-Asians who tugged at the corners of their eyes and spewed "ching-chong" sounds like a drawer full of silverware falling to the floor.
But Yao got the last laugh-in several ways. First, he helped lead the Rockets to a 108-104 victory over the Lakers in overtime in the Jan. 17 game.
Then, when final All-Star ballots were tallied this past Thursday, young Yao, 22, defeated O'Neal by almost a quarter-million votes to be the starting center for the Western Conference at the Feb. 9 game in Atlanta.
And, most impressive for a young man who still struggles with English, he showed a worldly traveler's keen and quick understanding of the communications gap between Shaq's perspective and that of Asians-and quickly bridged it.
"I believe Shaquille O'Neal was joking," he said, "but I think that a lot of Asian people don't understand that kind of joke."
Then, noting that the "world is getting smaller," he showed a little wit toward Shaq. "Chinese is hard to learn," he said. "I had trouble with it when I was little."
Of course, "little" is a relative term coming from a 7-foot-five, 300 pound, 22-year-old man. Nevertheless, he showed the enormous grace and good humor of Jackie Robinson back in the tension-filled days after he broke baseball's color line in the late 1940s.
That's appropriate, since Yao's rapidly rising reputation as a player and a team unifier is making him a Chinese version of Robinson at a time when Asians are growing as an NBA audience here and overseas.
I received several e-mails from Chinese Americans who were upset that Shaq's affront attracted almost none of the attention given to controversial white sports figures like John Rocker, Fuzzy Zoeller, Al Campanis, Jimmy "the Greek" Snyder and others who stuck their cleats in their mouths and, despite their apologies, lost their jobs or received other severe punishments for remarks that minorities took the wrong way.
For what it's worth, I defended each of these imprudent blabbermouths, in a qualified way. I believe that people who offend out of ignorance, instead of malice, should not be punished but re-educated in some way about why the offense was taken.
Unfortunately, the entertainment industry known as sports, sensitive perhaps to the large numbers of nonwhites out on the playing field compared to the few who are in management or ownership, tends either to overdo or under-do their response to such matters. It is curious to note, for example, how little attention Bonzi Wells of the Portland Trailblazers has received for at least three separate episodes in which white players for opposing teams have told reporters that he used such racial epithets as "honky" and "cracker" against them.
NBA officials said they could take no action as long as the charges were made only to reporters, not to the league. Maybe so, but you can't help but wonder how league officials would have reacted if the racial shoes in these cases were reversed.
It does not compliment me as an African American to see black athletes or officials held to a lower standard of behavior than their white counterparts. I long for the day when the entertainment industry known as sports can find reasonable ways to help their players and officials meet the same standards of tolerance and anger management that the rest of us in the working world are supposed to meet.
"We're all basketball players," Yao said. "We all live together on this earth."
Or, at least, we should be trying to.
The Shaq-Yao dustup illustrates how international the NBA has become, along with the rest of America.
It also shows how we African-Americans, no longer the only non-white minority that earns some attention, need to remember how it feels for people who look like Yao to see one of their own break the color bar in sports.
Yao appears to have done a very good job of acquainting himself with his new world. Shaq, like the rest of us, needs to get used to it, too.
Enjoy this writer's work? Why not sign-up for the daily JWR update. It's free. Just click here.
Comment on JWR contributor Clarence Page's column by clicking here.
01/23/03: Affirmative action will be remarketed under new name
01/13/03: Bond movie offers clues to Korea crisis
01/07/03: Dr. Frist to the rescue … of his party
01/02/03: Feeling a 'draft,' but not much
12/17/02: To rob a burning cross of its power
12/03/02: Closing black-white test-score gaps
11/19/02: Uncle Same wants your data
11/15/02: Marriage vs. 'player' impulse
11/11/02: How Oz can help the Dems
11/05/02: We reserve right to be complicated
10/22/02: What the pro-gun lobby and anti-gun lobby have in common
10/18/02: Take Sharpton seriously? For Prez??
10/15/02: A beauty and the bullies
10/08/02: Time to start 'fingerprinting' bullets
10/08/02: Poet laureate hater fell for Internet hoax
10/04/02: Keeping it real, despite howls from black 'leaders'
10/01/02: Revisiting the 'Jogger' horror
09/27/02: Sometimes freedom is a necessary nuisance
09/13/02: Foil Fidel with free trade
09/10/02: Measuring the myth of 'super weed'
09/06/02: A year later: A reality-check
09/03/02: Make better choices before some jury somewhere does
08/20/02: Bid farewell to the Cigarette Century
08/16/02: Rights matter, even in circus trials
08/09/02: Jousting with Rumsfeld's fog of wit
08/06/02: Covert action is cool again
08/01/02: Powell's premature obituaries
07/30/02: A common sense tip on internal snooping
07/18/02: Jacko plays race card badly
07/12/02: Last flight for a pioneer airman
07/08/02: Dems will miss Watts, too
06/28/02: 'Supreme Court reads polls, too
06/25/02: 'The Body' bites, then bows out
06/21/02: Punishment first, then the crime?
06/18/02: Reporting still risky for Haiti's press
06/14/02: Bush's security plan leaves large gaps
06/04/02: Fix FBI's culture gap first
05/28/02: Fidel's new apartheid for tourists
05/21/02: Now McKinney's lunacy sounds like the Democratic Party line
05/19/02: A paradox of historical proportions
05/14/02: 'Murphy Brown' revisited in age of Ozzy
05/10/02: America looks like a model of tolerance and inclusion
05/07/02: Forget it, Bill, you're no Oprah
04/26/02: Mapping out ethnic and racial change
04/23/02: A game of another color
04/19/02: It's high time to open up pot-law debate
04/11/02: 'Osbourne' family values rock, aging Ozzy quakes
03/22/02: Zimbabwe election leaves world sleepless
03/19/02: A slur? Where is thy sting?
03/15/02: A Pearl of wisdom for reporter's unborn son
03/12/02: Army race and gender policies on trial
03/08/02: A short list of losers to be left behind
03/05/02: Revenge of the 'mediasaurus'
02/26/02: Jihads aren't just for Muslims
02/26/02: It's hard to be 'objective' during wartime
02/19/02: Hollywood's new villain: Your HMO
02/12/02: Father of 'Manchild' leaves lasting message
02/08/02: $nookering the reparations crowd
01/31/02: Prisoners of a War of Words
01/29/02: One more Enron woe: Al Sharpton & company
01/25/02: Searching for slaves in bin Laden's attic
01/22/02: Andrew Young's newest 'friend'
01/08/02: Hard-earned lessons from 9-11
12/18/01: Whatever happened to questions about the birds and the bees?
12/14/01: The "White Negro" Taliban?
12/07/01: Jackson's turn to gloat
11/27/01: Friendly warning from a lover of liberty
11/21/01: The face of hunger is changing
11/15/01: Our troubled sense of trust
11/08/01: Lessons about terror from the 'hood
11/06/01: Getting used to the 'new normal'
11/02/01: Wicked ways to make them talk
10/30/01: It's not just about bin Laden
10/26/01: More than mail fell between the cracks
10/23/01: Terrorists threaten urban recovery, too
10/18/01: Sometimes, assassination warranted
10/15/01: Self-censorship rises again
10/12/01: Contradictions illustrate the complicated nature of the new terrorism
10/05/01: Look who's 'profiling' now
10/01/01: Don't trash liberty to save it
09/28/01: Life, love and cell phones during wartime
09/24/01: How to catch an elusive terrorist
09/21/01: The war I was waiting for
09/17/01: When rage turns to hate
09/13/01: Terror attack tests US, let's give right response
09/06/01: U.S. should have stayed and argued
09/04/01: Columbine killer's parents get upclose and personal
08/31/01: Virtual kids? Log me out
08/28/01: Two Africans, one black, one white, same fight
08/23/01: Sharpton for president
08/20/01: Shaking up the rules on keeping secrets
08/16/01: Bush's u-turn on racial goals
08/09/01: Outsider Bubba comes 'in' again
08/06/01: Not ready for 'color-blindness' yet
08/02/01: Immigration timing couldn't be better
07/26/01: Summer of Chandra: An international traveler's perspective
07/17/01: Overthrowing a régime is only the beginning
07/10/01: Big Brother is watching you, fining you
07/05/01: Can blacks be patriotic? Should they be?
06/19/01: Get 'real' about marriage
06/12/01: Amos, Andy and Tony Soprano
06/07/01: Getting tough with the Bush Twins
06/05/01: Bringing marriage back into fashion
05/31/01: "Ken" and "Johnnie": The odd-couple legal team
05/24/01: Sharpton's challenge to Jackson
05/22/01: Test scores equal (a) MERIT? (b) MENACE? (c) ALL OF ABOVE?
05/17/01: Anti-pot politics squeeze the ill
05/15/01: Was Babe Ruth black?
05/10/01: U.N.'s torture caucus slaps Uncle Sam
05/08/01: 'The Sopranos' a reflection of our times
05/03/01: 'Free-fire' zones, then and now
05/01/01: War on drugs misfires against students
04/26/01: Another athlete gets foot-in-mouth disease
04/23/01: 'Slave' boat mystery reveals real tragedy
04/19/01: McVeigh's execution show
04/12/01: Not this time, Jesse
04/05/01: Dubya is DEFINITELY his own man, you fools!
04/02/01: Milking MLK
03/29/01: The candidate who censored himself?
03/22/01: "Will Hispanics elbow blacks out of the way as the nation's most prominent minority group?"
03/19/01: Blacks and the SATs
03/15/01: The census: How much race still matters in the everyday life of America
03/12/01: Jesse is a victim!
03/08/01: Saving kids from becoming killers
03/01/01: Parents owe "Puffy" and Eminem our thanks
© 2001 TMS